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Dana Parsons ORANGE COUNTY

Film resurrects champ but takes punch at journalism

August 30, 2007|Dana Parsons

This will not be a movie review. That would take me way out of my element.

Instead, it's a journalism review. Hey, no wisecracks.

I saw "Resurrecting the Champ" last week, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Hartnett. Part of its allure is that it combines two of my favorite subjects -- boxing and the newspaper business.

The main reason, though, is that the movie sprung from a Los Angeles Times Magazine story written by J.R. Moehringer, a colleague in the Orange County office while he worked on the story 10 years ago.

Pretty cool to have your story become a movie. That's probably what Moehringer once told himself.

On second thought. . . .

The screen version features Hartnett as a Denver sportswriter who meets a homeless man claiming to be a former ranked heavyweight contender. That's a story in anybody's newspaper, and it's the one Moehringer pursued with gusto when he met his down-and-out subject in a Santa Ana park.

In the movie version, Hartnett's story dazzles everyone until, oops, it's discovered not long after that the guy isn't really who he said he is.

And so we get a movie that beats up the newspaper business for being so hot for a story that it doesn't bother to check things out.

The reporter is reduced to a bum in his own right who, even after learning the truth, is reluctant to publicly acknowledge it. He's not only lazy; he's unethical.

I kept thinking, Moehringer must have been perfectly thrilled at the filmmakers' telling the world that the movie was inspired by his story.

It might make me wince, but I could handle a story about a wayward reporter. "Shattered Glass" did it very well. The Jayson Blair story is still out there to be told about the New York Times reporter with a propensity to invent things.

That's why "Champ" is so irksome -- in real life, the reality was exactly the opposite of what the movie depicts.

Rather than running with the story, as would be the temptation, Moehringer put so much time into it that he eventually learned -- to his great distress -- that the guy posing as former contender Bob Satterfield really wasn't him.

I remember us talking in the office when he learned the truth. He acted as though the world had come to an end. All that time spent on the story, he lamented, for naught. He assumed the story was dead; I suggested he write a saga for a national magazine and describe how he'd been duped.

Luckily, he subsequently turned the thing into a gem for The Times that became a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

I suppose I could just buck up and be a man about the new movie and forgive the filmmakers for their liberties with the truth.

That'd be a lot easier if we weren't living in a time of declining trust in the media and when some of our fellow citizens seem determined to convince the American public that the mainstream press is biased and unreliable.

Maybe they believe it; to me, their effort more closely resembles dangerous propaganda. They seem to think they're helping the republic by diminishing the mainstream press; to me, they're undercutting it.

The press has never claimed perfection, but it's still committed to covering the nation's agenda and getting things right. I know many people don't believe that, but if they disbelieve it enough, someday they'll be left with agenda-driven bloggers and empty-headed news coverage.

That's when the republic will begin to sag.

The way things usually work is how they did with Moehringer's story. You work a story until you think you've got it right, and only then do you write it. All the things the movie says the reporter didn't do -- ask the boxing experts, check the archives, talk to Satterfield's relatives, be skeptical -- the real-life Moehringer did.

That's probably why the cinematic version of Moehringer's story bugs me.

I haven't talked to him in a long time, and he may be embarrassed I'm using him to talk about the press. Maybe he loved the movie and shrugged off the fictionalization.

I did, however, put in a call Monday to Sheila Kern, now an assistant director of editorial research at the Sacramento Bee. She formerly worked at The Times and did a fair amount of research for Moehringer on the magazine story.

The movie also bothered her, she says -- and not just because the researcher in the movie does things Kern says she'd never do. "How journalists were portrayed made me mad," she says, "because it wasn't true at all. It made J.R. out to be a bumbling idiot."

Kern remembers thinking Satterfield was a fraud before Moehringer wanted to accept it. "I think he really and truly believed the homeless guy was Bobby Satterfield," she says.

Years ago, I first heard the old newsroom gag "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

Moehringer loved the champ's story, but he still checked it out.

I also know he loves the movies, but I suspect he'd say the 10 years it took to bring "his story" to the screen wasn't worth the wait.

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Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

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